Unpacking the Wallpack

Apr 14, 2023
Unpacking the Wallpack

With light trespass pervasive, the unshielded version of this fixture stands out as the main culprit. It’s time for a manufacturing moratorium

By Dan Weissman

Recently I spent an invigorating evening on a lighting manufacturer’s roof deck in midtown Manhattan. As libations lubricated immersive conversation, we witnessed a Harvest Moon rise over the Empire State Building. The night was glorious. Yet across the sea of urban luminosity what stuck out was not the dazzling light shows and oppressive logos of the many skyscrapers projecting their corporate identities, but a single unshielded wallpack over a maintenance door on some banal penthouse roof.

I have long been a proponent of reducing Artifical Light at Night (ALAN), mitigating light pollution through design. Last year I bought a telescope to share the night sky with my kids. From our street in Cambridge, MA we can only see the moon, a few planets, and a handful of stars; the rest of the night sky is obscured by photons bouncing off particles in our atmosphere. Light pollution is a multi-variant problem, with a seemingly simple solution: just turn off the lights! If only it were that easy. The International Dark Sky Association, as well as a growing list of scientists, authors and designers, have developed a range of proposals for reducing light pollution through cultural adaptation, technological upgrades or governmental regulation. However, with the best of intentions, there remains a disconnect between those trying to make meaningful change and regular folks that strongly miss the point.

Oh, so many types of fixtures, styles and mountings blast glare, uplight and light trespass. Yet as I move around the city at night, a single source type seems to stick out as the most pervasive culprit: the unshielded wallpack. This ubiquitous fixture type is, in my opinion, the most dangerous and destructive light source on the market, impacting the nocturnal environment and public health as well as exacerbating climate change. It’s time to end their ubiquity.

The wall-mounted light fixture, or “sconce,” is one of the oldest lighting typologies, linked to burning flames on sticks hung on cave walls.

In his article “Imagining The Future of the City at Night,” Roger Narboni notes that “Since the birth of public lighting (which, in Europe, can be traced to the Middle Ages), public spaces—the empty spaces in the city—have always been lit, in particular by lanterns attached to the surrounding buildings.” Pre-electricity, exterior lighting required glass lanterns to shield from wind extinguishing the combustive flame, imbuing a de facto formality. The aesthetic baggage of these early modern technologies persists throughout our built environment, having transitioned to signifiers of traditional values, ironically most successfully reinforced with the latest LED technologies: the “squirrel cage” or the faux-flame bulb. If poorly lamped, these anachronistic fixtures can be quite glary, but instead typically employ an Edison socket, limiting their total output and offering relamping flexibility.

Light fixtures of any category can be organized along a continuum between those intended to be seen as objects (decorative) and those intending to do luminous work (functional). Decorative light fixtures may serve several purposes, signaling owner desires or an architect’s aesthetic while attempting to provide a degree of performative illumination. At best, exterior sconces create jewels of sparkle, adding depth to architecture; at worst, they can overtake a façade’s nocturnal appearance. Many decorative products are simply too bright, offering more output than is necessary to convey their aesthetic intent. Despite their potential visual harm, decorative products’ multipurpose motivations allow them to exist as both an architectural gesture and an engineered system.

However, on the other end of the spectrum lies the wallpack, an umbrella term for engineered luminaires mounted to exterior walls existing purely to exalt luminous energy. Wallpacks are not intended to be materially present; in fact, they explicitly seek to dematerialize the fixture’s presence. Obviously, this is far from reality. This technical object, a product of modernism and post-World War II functionalism, attempts to provide illumination devoid of aesthetic value. Whether fixed or adjustable, wallpacks emote pure function in ubiquitous applications across industrial and commercial settings, adorning emergency egress doors, backsides of gas stations and strip mall parking lots—under the pretense of security and safety, buoyed by the institutionalization of light-level requirements demanded by everincreasing recommended practices and adopted municipal codes.

In our present Epoch of Electroluminescence, the cost of light has fallen so dramatically that wallpacks have proliferated at an alarming rate. Anyone can purchase a low-cost high-output LED wallpack (only 135 watts for 14,000 lumens, at 5500K! That high-color temperature for, you know… energy efficiency). With simple installation directly to a junction box, these products last decades with no ability to relamp at a lower output or adjust color temperature and will rarely dim down. To be clear, “full cut-off” wallpacks have gained popularity as the public sensitizes to the adverse effects of light pollution. We lighting designers almost exclusively select full cut-off wallpacks for functional exterior lighting. However, unshielded wallpacks remain a popular low-cost option, often labeled with terms like “contractor-select,” “energy efficient” or “light-pollution friendly” due to their extreme capacity to turn watts into lumens. It’s just that most of those lumens fail to deliver on their intended use. We in the lighting business have long labeled such fixtures “Glare Bombs.”

Façades imbue architectural form. As its foe, the wallpack is deployed as anti-architecture, existing in spite of its architectural host; it is a parasite, a pariah. The wallpack, devoid ofaesthetic value, creates a condition of Bentham and Foucault’s “Panopticon.” The fixture demands a disciplining of the public from the perspective of a seemingly paranoid property owner perched in a position of centralized authority, intending to clearly see all goings-on in the surrounding nocturnal environment. This is particularly fervent in Black and Brown communities, where light is used as a tool of power (LD+A, September 2021). Due to the blinding glare and extreme contrast, the wallpack obscures the view beyond itself. It is a device of alienation, creating a zone of control and separation. When located at or near property lines, wallpacks overtly overstep limits of legal territorial occupation—they may be visible for miles.

Of course, the truth is rarely so nefarious; more likely installed as low-cost replacements of legacy sources, perhaps to cheaply illuminate a parking lot without running power to expensive pole lights, the wallpack inadvertently creates its own territory. Devoid of aesthetic value, the wallpack is the shotgun of exterior lighting, firing luminous energy into the night, spewing photons into eyes, disrupting the lives of nocturnal creatures, and reducing visibility of the urban environment— and up to the cosmos. Their cost-effectiveness externalizes their true costs to the surrounding environment and communities.

Manufacturers who continue to produce this style of product should be labeled what they are: polluters. Unshielded wallpacks fall into a similar category as fossil fuels or toxic forever chemicals: manufactured products that do more harm to society than good. To that end I propose a moratorium: lighting manufacturers should stop producing fixtures with obvious light-polluting capabilities, providing only full cut-off options for this functional segment of the market. I call on lighting manufacturers that proclaim sustainability efforts to take the first step. Do the hard work and the right thing—remove detrimental products from the market, even if it means losing an ounce of market share in the short term. Pay attention to BUG ratings; work to develop products that can be DLC-Luna certified. For owners of the many wallpacks in existence, consider replacement, or add shrouds to shield the polluting lumens. Inevitably as part of any dark-sky initiative, funding may be required to support citizens transitioning away from highly polluting sources and lighting design strategies.

When approached from the perspective of the Ethics of Care, lighting should benefit the public good¹ Lighting specialists must be attentive to the needs of society, and avoid claiming ignorance of lighting’s negative impacts. We must take responsibility for creating a just luminous environment for all species including, but not limited to, humanity. We have the competence to provide that care and must be responsive to the needs of the public by offering solutions through design and manufactured goods that allow us to pluralistically cohabitate on this planet. Lighting should provide quality luminous environments that facilitate the diurnal lives of all biological species. Producing light sources that willfully ignore scientific, social and cultural impacts should simply not be produced.

Don’t agree? See for yourself. Walk around your neighborhood at night. Pay attention to all light sources. Squint. What stands out? I bet it’ll be that innocuous wallpack.

1 Tronto, Joan – An Ethics of Care